The Warm Heart of Georgia – Fiona’s visit October 2023

Jan 16, 2024 | Blog Posts, Far Frontiers Travel, Trip Reports

I sensed my trip was going to go well when the smiling immigration officer at Tbilisi Airport welcomed me to Georgia and proffered a miniature bottle of Georgian red with my speedily stamped passport. Soon after, I was in the safe hands of my excellent driver guide who would be my constant companion for the next 10 days. Finally, three years after the pandemic, I’ve made it to Tbilisi, the charming Georgian capital where Europe meets Asia. What a great start. Cobbled streets, hanging balconies, fortresses, churches and a trendy café culture vibe, interwoven with the ever present Kura River which wends its way through the centre of the city.

Heading North, up the Georgian Military Highway, I saluted the border with Russia before making the unforgettable pilgrimage to Trinity Church perched high on a knoll in the shadow of Mt Kazbegi (5054m) in the High Caucasus. There is no place like it – this tiny church with a backdrop of snow peaks will stay with you long after you visit in person. Svetiskhoveli Cathedral, burial place of Georgian Kings, imposing Ananuri Fortress and Stalin’s Museum, featuring his childhood home and original railway carriage at Gori (his birthplace) are all stand-outs in what was an extensive trip around Georgia. I wandered the 7th century cave town of Upliksikhe, marvelled at Kutaisi’s 12th Century Gelati Monastery with its incredible frescoes and got vertigo visiting the Enguri Reservoir Project, at one time the largest dam in the world. I arrived in Ushguli in thick snow, with its UNESCO Fortress Tower Villages – a must see of the Svaneti region in the High Caucasus with near 5000m peaks of Tetnuldi and Ushpa looming over me. I strolled around the village, lit a candle in the tiny church and fell in love with the incredible scenery and sharp mountain air. Wherever I went, Mt Tetnuldi seemed to follow me.

Soon it was time to head south, to the Black Sea coastal city of Batumi with its 19th century and soviet architecture, incredible Botanical Gardens, palm tree lined plaza and dancing fountains – a sight to behold. I paid brief homage to the border with Turkey at Sarpi before turning east once again, travelling three hours to the former Soviet spa town of Borjomi to hike in its beautiful national park. The four hours I spent trekking on steep zig zag trails of conifer and pine to the beech and oak lined ridge with far reaching views, were just sublime. Special mention must go to my Georgian driver, Irakli and his trusty 4WD. He transformed my trip with his encylopedic knowledge of the region’s history, politics, architecture, culture and daily life and drove me safely and with good humour almost the entire length and breadth of the country. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with him and gain such an insight into the life of Georgians today. I have returned home with a renewed interest in the region and its lively neighbours. Winding up the trip I suggest that southern Georgia is the unsung hero. If you are lucky enough to go, you must visit Vardzia – not only for its extraordinary cave city but also for the drive to and fro – at first following a picturesque river in a deep and winding canyon and later the gorge giving way to vast prairie like windswept plains, reminiscent of my trip to Tibet some years back. The glory of the autumn leaves – golden yellows, reds and browns among the green, only added to the colourful canvas laid out before us as we drove. My last day was spent sipping some rather nice Georgian reds and whites in the SE wine region of Kakheti. En route we stopped at the roadside and Irakli bought great slabs of salty sheep’s cheese, bow shaped Kakheti bread, buffalo yoghurt and long candle-like strings of Churchkhela made from grapes and walnut. Cobbled streets, wine chateaus and imposing monasteries were found at every turn and I spent some time reminiscing about the food I’d been enjoying. Giant fresh tomato and cucumber salads bursting with flavour and infused with walnuts. Khachapuri (a doughy bread) with cheese (Sulguni) or Quail’s eggs, thick creamy yoghurt and local honey, walnuts and dried fruit, grilled trout and Churchkhela. All washed down with a glass of Tsinandali red or a chilled tankard of Natakhtari Gold. All too soon my trip was over. Irakli and I had covered 2400kms around Georgia in pursuit of memorable landscapes and experiences. I found them around every corner.

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